Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Online Moderators and Their Communities

Online moderators have to be autoctone leaders, that is, they have to emerge from the community. However, they very often are "staffed" in a way that reminds me of that game "if you were a fruit which fruit would you be?". No screening, no recruitment, minimal training, minimal supervision, few sources of informal learning (usually other moderators mentoring, coaching, counseling new ones). The hidden or open sponsors of such communities are grossly miscalculating the role and the moderator/facilitator community impact.

By "instinct" (I really don't know how "natural" this is, it could be superimposed out of living in a culture that fosters extrinsic rewards), moderators tend to identify themselves with the community they moderate. Therefore, they tend not to allow it the freedom to make mistakes, because they tend to take the community's failure as their own personal failure.

It takes time (lots of time) and experience (lots of experience) to learn to just let go of the community results while preserving accountability for what really depends on us moderators. I saw some apparently skilled moderators backchannelling feverishly in order to pretend that the community has a "spontaneous life", like in the Wizard of Oz: "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain", while I saw other seemingly seasoned ones rushing into each and every conflict with the intent of "smoothing it" (to the point that the troll asked her to moderate him!).

The problem is, leadership mandates the capability of taking a stand, whatever it is, and to be able to submit it to logical scrutiny. So, whoever won't be able to take a stand and back it up, will have no real leadership but just the power to click some buttons. Without leadership, there is no authority, and without authority (as in authoritative, not as in authoritarian) people don't respect one another. And communities (especially communities of practice) get subversive when it comes to incompetent leaders (either permissive or controlling).

Allowing a community to make mistakes is therefore a basic competency of a skilled online moderator. The ones that "play nice" (aka smooth conflicts asap, invites to agree to disagree etc) usually are histrionic persons that can survive as long as the "show" is short-lived, such as in face-to-face meetings. They crave and need the public eye in order to perform, they sense it and put themselves in a position to meet their needs.

However, whenever the moderation/facilitation becomes 24/7 (or 2/3 hours every day), the drama queen needs more and more private time in order to keep on herding cats while keeping him/herself together, and the problems start emerging, especially in asynchronous facilitation, notoriously the most reflexive. All of a sudden, it takes more than a good voice, some charming ways, some right move and a pleasant look to "run the show". However, many don't, can't or won't see it ahead of time. It's like the difference between a theatre and a film performance: the former can be instinct-driven, excessive, groovy, but the latter just has to be precise, factual, professional or else you're out. While in the former tantrums can help you run the show momentarily and fake it till you find a way out, in the latter they hinder the development of an optimal performance and faking its simply not a professional option.

But on-fac is far more challenging than f2f facilitation for other reasons as well. You get to "know" your creature, spend more time with it, you loose lucidity, get more involved and.. find out things about you (like your relationship with power, control, anger, other assorted feelings plus your personal pet peeves) that you won't necessarily die for exploring ;)

I try to always let the group bicker, fight, yell and... solve the conflict amongst them as much as possible. Unless I see insults going on, I don't intervene. If I intervene, I intervene as a member, I don't use my power/authority unless I just have to, because I think that a facilitator that isn't a primus inter pares KILLS any CoP, or collaborative community, or even "mere" online group.

Sometimes, members publicly ask for my intervention. There is NOTHING more empowering to the group as a whole than just calling them to a responsible act! So I say "I'm not your babysitter, I won't force [such and such] to do anything." Then I express my opinion whatever it is as an act of group membership (something like "I think [such and such] is wrong because [this and that]") and reiterate that I can't oblige anybody. At this point, either the disruptive person all of a sudden "gets it", or
s/he will feel empowered and get more disruptive. Now, the group will take
ownership on its reactions and assume leadership. In other words:
governance.

However, there are times in which communities get disbanded because
members, not mods/onfacs, behave like kids.

I can't help noticing how some persons can go on and on about inside jokes without having the slightest idea of the potential they have for originating feelings of exclusion in whoever isn't part of the joke.

My experience is, jokes are tolerated better when either they come from a
small group of tight friends, or when they come from many subgroups. In other words, they are felt as ok when they are either perceived as signs of "few people with higher status", or as signs of "many subgroups with similar status". When the jokes or hints are about a large subgroup then ingroup/outgroup dynamics are unavoidable!

Nothing harms a community (online/offline), more than a clique. One would think participants would know and yet there are long-term communities I know and have been part of, that keep on being cliquish because "they like it" and get regularly puzzled about the "perception from the outside" ;)

Again I would say I can't fathom how people that have participated in other
fora for years managed not to look and listen enough to previous and past exchanges and experiences... so much that they behave as if they have missed to observe such group dynamics, which I'm not sure could be blamed on others.

I can't help thinking that as long as we (generic) decide to engage in community exchanges our own identity doesn't all belong to ourselves only any more. It becomes a negotiated concept, therefore it doesn't depend on one subject anymore, it depends on the group as a whole set of subjects. It gets out of the realm of subjectivism, where the individual is king AND referee, and gets into the relativism, interplay of the perception (right/wrong) that one individual has of him/herself and the fact that the rest of the world will ask him/her for a reality check.

So if the group decides it doesn't like your (generic) idea of yourself (generic again), reality (in the sense of "negotiated identity") will bite.

This will especially bite many (supposed, self-defined) fans of Vygotsky, who somehow manage to hint at the fact that "negotiation of meaning" should/would/could/might imply subjectivization of meaning. Those persons just miss the point, in that Vygotsky's negotiation of meaning implies an iterative dialogue among subjects that keeps going till a mutual agreement on its meaning is reached (note: the mutual agreement doesn't have to happen in a particular way, and it's not objective... these are the many differences with Argyris' framework).

However Vygotsky, in no way, shape or form, leaves room for agreement as "casual encounter of two or more subjects that happens to agree on the meaning of their encounter". I do understand that to a person in pre-operational thinking, the two things might seem the same though LOL

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